VNV Nation

With the Dark City Festival in full swing, I hunt down Ronan Harris, VNV nation mainman, and the life and soul of ANY party..
Ronan had arrived Saturday night, and immediately headed to the bar at the venue, family and friends in tow.. He’s an affable, approachable man, all smiles and laughter. He’ll pose with you for a photo, he’ll even phone your girlfriend to say hello on a mobile.. he’s just a LOVELY man. And that for most people is too much to bear, they can’t accept that such a talented man, and a famous band can be so NICE. So they create whispers, they make up stories, they take VNV down a notch or two. But the fact is that both Mark and Ronan are amongst the most approachable and friendly guys it’s ever been my pleasure to interview.. Combine that with a fierce wit, a strong intelligence and driving passion for music and art, and you have an all-round humble superstar. Ronan made a big impact on me, and I was NO big VNV fan to start out with.. But I’ve developed a major respect for one of the most talented and heartfelt artists in today’s scene. Don’t bad mouth VNV in front of me, because these boys are SOLID GOLD.
Let me show you why.. Here’s my 30 mins with the VNV front man.. It’s 4pm the sound check done, the MFB (mother fucking bass) bass sequencer programmed, the drinking started, the fags in full flow.. Coffee in one hand, fag grasped in the other, Ronan strikes a powerful presence as he sits opposite me. We clear the backstage room, it’s just me and Ronan for the next 30 mins, so let us start at the beginning…
(By DJ Cyberchrist, April 2004)

R= Ronan

J – Thanks for finding the time for me.
R – You’re welcome

J – So let’s kick this off then.. What’s a nice Irish boy like you doing in an EBM band?
R – I guess in the 70’s when I was – I’m 36 now, 37 this year – so when I was young I got to listen to electronic music when it first got into the charts, and for some reason Irish Radio used electronic music like Kraftwerk for the links between shows on the radio and the TV as well. So it was a really good grounding and I was just very attracted to the sound. I followed electronic music through the 70’s when I could, I mean, if I got birthday money – my first album was Kraftwerk’s Autobahn.

J – Oh really?
R – Absolutely, I liked the sound of it. I always viewed electronic music in the 70’s as futuristic kind of science fiction music. Then it went on from there and I got into the early Human League, I mean I was really young, I was naive about the scene or what was going on, but I just liked the sound. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg, on this big valve radio at home. I kind of associate this spirit of optimism in the 70’s, the sci-fi futurism and all that, with the electronic sounds coming from distant cities through my big old valve radio.. It was a time of learning for me. Luxembourg would play all these new underground bands, Depeche Mode, DAF, they were my favourite sorts of bands the heavy EBM bands..Which I guess formulated my opinions about music I guess.

J – DAF? So it must have come full circle for you when you remixed their track Der Sheriff last year?
R – Oh yeah..We met them, and well.. Ahem.. ANYWAY.. (cue laughter and rolling of eyes, it’s very apparent that Ronan’s heroes weren’t all they were cracked up to be..) I’m in the fortunate position to have met so many of my heroes from when I was growing up through the years, some are nice guys, some aren’t but the fact is I still admire them, even if I don’t want to give them the time of day.. And the thing I like is that my friends tend to be people who either hate VNV Nation or I don’t like their music and that’s what I like. If it’s people versus music, the people always win out for me.
There are lots of Rock Stars or celebrities if you want to call them that who are UTTER BASTARDS..who have no or little personalities but they write the most amazing music.
What’s different with us is the influence of ‘being Irish’ in our music, there’s like a great emotional sense in the music and I guess that is very much a part of the Irish artistic character - If you’re rejected, if you feel different – that is in essence what Irish Art is all about. Many of the Irish poets and playwrights, and authors, they all felt unfairly rejected by the very narrow minded farmer society. It’s got a very ancient history of expression, of pouring your heart out in song and that’s in me. That’s part of me, not just part of my culture, I just feel this passion in my heart to express, and then one day it just clicked…
I’d been doing music for years, I was writing Praise and Fallen and you can kind of hear a difference in focus I got it together both musically and emotionally and from then on it was kind of plain sailing, well no not plain sailing actually but I knew where VNV Nation was going from then on. Praise the Fallen was a kind of catharsis for me, helped me with a lot of things.

J – So you grew up in small town Ireland?
R – Actually I was in Dublin, so not so small a town! No smaller than where I am now, I’m in Hamburg. Growing up in Dublin there was no music scene as such apart from the accepted main stream styles. When I was 13 you were either into AC/DC, The Doors or The Rolling Stones and you beat the crap out of anyone who looked like a New Romantic or Futurist, and I was one of the latter so I was one of the people who was a target basically.
I always had a passion to leave the town. I mean I love Ireland and it’s a fantastic country that made me what I am but I’m very into meeting people from all different countries. I love to learn how to say ‘hello’ , ’how are you’ and ‘can I have a beer please’ in all sorts of languages. I guess growing up in Dublin led me to have a strong identity of who I am but also opened me up to meeting other people from other lands that would one day lead me to leaving Ireland..

J – What’s it like living in Hamburg?
R – The reason I moved there was that I was living in London for the last 12 years, Jesus! (throws up his hands in amazement and surprise) no it’s more! I’ve been away from Ireland now 16 years now.. Shit. Yeah, London it was GREAT but it got to the point where it was too full, too chaotic, there was no kind of break from the noise and the people. Even out of town there was always a major congregation point of people.
Hamburg has two distinct characters – FUN and QUIET. I have peace and quiet if I want it, I have fun if I want it. Germans aren’t the mindless automatons that we think they will be. Hamburgers are.. to use their correct term, believe it or not… they’re very reserved but very passionate people. They love their city and they’re full of stories about their city, it’s a very working man’s city though. Very multi-cultural. Everyone mixes together, no racial divide like you get in Berlin or other cities in Germany. I LOVE IT, there’s something very magical about the place. When you’re coming back on the train, and you go over the huge central lake, you just feel like you’re home I don’t know how to describe it..
The Goth/EBM scene is like a little family, everyone knows each other, but they don’t bother you. They don’t bother people in bands, they don’t want to annoy you or anything, Wofsheim’s from there Pitchfork are from there Rammstein used to live in Hamburg, bands a thousand times greater than us, and so we’re honoured to be a part of that scene now.

J – So how’s your german now?
R – Very good now I believe..

J – I was at Leipsig that year when Das Ich didn’t turn up and you had to sing Destillat reading the lyrics from the CD sleeve..
R – Oh shit, yeah..(he cracks into soft pealing laughter..)
No shit, that was years ago, it’s got a lot better since.
My grammar is a bit shite, but I can understand a lot more than I can actually speak.. We went on tour with XPQ21 a few years ago - their drummer Sascha, is from Eastern Germany where they don’t speak English at all, you know they learnt Russian as there second language, he said to me last night he said ‘shit Ronan, when you toured with us two years ago, your German was allright just functional German, but now it’s pretty fluent’ and I can now impersonate his East German accent, and I get German jokes and stuff, so I feel I don’t sound like an Irishman abroad so much anymore!

J – You talked a little bit about your influences a bit earlier, but what do you listen to at home Ronan?
R – I listen to.. and this is no joke, maybe it’s to do with the virtue of my years, but I listen to albums from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Everything from Noise to Opera. Even Black Metal! I like some dance music, as long as its underground, I hate cheap Euro-Trance, Sugar Shite! But unfortunately we were taking some influences out of that scene. Sounds in our music were from Goa Trance and stuff like that but then all these producers came along and decided to turn it into a cheesy formula, which included some of the same elements that VNV had used. So we have the problem now in that people don’t realise that our influences came from the underground music scene and not the populist chart crap that came along after!
I listen to anything new. I love the new indie music scene from America, I love bands like INTERPOL. Ok things like that are harking back to my early years but I love it! The band I have TOTAL respect for is ‘THE FAINT’ have you heard of them?

J – No, sadly not..
R – You’re missing out on one of the best bands in the last 10 years I think. They’re from Omaha Nebraska, and they got mixed up with the Electro-clash scene in the states, no-one knows why.. But they’re the best live band I’ve ever seen! –They Kick arse, and their songs are awesome, it almost feels like you’re listening to the first Duran Duran album with like err… The Clash all mixed up together. It’s a bizarre mix, they’re not young, they’re not old, just a weird bunch of people. Their music is awesome because its not bound by anything.

J – I’m getting a definite strong running theme here Ronan which is music with passion. Doesn’t matter what genre, as long as it has passion..
R – Yes, yes! It doesn’t matter where it comes from. It can be Peter Gabriel, Soundtracks, Classical Music, wherever I find that passion, that raw passion that’s what turns me on and gets me off musically and emotionally.

J – Have you heard Gorecki’s Symphony number 3?
R – Oh yes..! What a great piece.. That’s what I’m talking about! You know I introduced someone recently to Eric Satie.. (classical music composer famous for piano pieces)
I love Classical Music, but I kinda like to get away from the top 10 classics you know? I think it’s sad that now we even have a Classical Music top ten.. There is something very proletarian about that you know? Very Borgeious!
I still think that Mozart was a genius and Wagner.. Wagner is my favourite composer, it’s just the little things he does to make characters and add expression, it’s amazing to see and hear..

J – I studied Classical Music so I can totally see what you’re saying on this..
R – Oh my God! Really?

J- Yeah, I did A-level Music..
R – Wow, yeah for me Classical music captures that passion, that drive. Also, for me the ancient cultures. They had these rituals and they were brought alive by music. I feel we’ve lost that in Europe, and that’s a sad thing. One of the things I like about coming from Ireland is that sense of history, of that ancient culture and music that still spills out at the slightest chance in every pub. They all bring instruments and play together and remember their sacred bond, their shared heritage. These guys play phenomenally complex music, and it gets you right here in your chest.. It pulls at your heart strings, and I’m proud to be a part of that heritage and hope that in my own small way I’m keeping that tradition alive through the lyrics and music that I write..

J – To me there is something in Classical music, in folk music, sacred music, and sometimes it leaks into other forms but for me this is where it is found in its purest form. And that is a pure expression of emotion. It’s when Art of whatever form becomes PURE ART, one that moves your very soul.. Garcia Lorca the Spanish Playwright described it as ‘Duende’…
R – Oh really?

J – Yes, Duende is a flamenco word which means when the music and performance takes you over totally. You know when the hairs on the back your neck stand up and you’re moved to tears when you watch or hear something?
R – Yeah, shit, yeah! That’s a great thing. What was it called again?

J – Duende..
R - I’ll have to remember that..Have you heard the bulgarian voices?

J – Yeah. That’s it. La Voix Bulgares? That’s the type of thing I’m talking about..
R – Wow! Shit those people blew me away! I saw them live a few years back and they were just out of this world!!
There’s something gritty and real about folk music. It brings out something in you. They are often songs about freedom or about loss, that’s what calls to you, that’s what grabs you. People write great music when they’ve just been dumped by their girlfriend or whatever, hardship is always going to be the best stimulus for GREAT music. I was going through heavy emotional stuff when I was doing Praise the Fallen, and for me it helped me to create some of my best work.. So I can understand and absorb lots of different influences, and I hope that these influences in whatever way or spirit come through in the music I do..

J – So tell me a little about why you left dependent?
R – Well it wasn’t necessarily that we left Dependent. Let’s just say that there was a very big difference in opinion, between ourselves and the label management and also our manager was the label manager and we split. I don’t think we’ll ever see eye to eye on that, but I don’t think that’s important anymore.. They were very good years for us. It was a great grounding it was a great base.. Dependents’ success came from the demise of OFF-BEAT and Stefan the head of Dependent took the four best selling bands, or the four bands with the best interest, and took them off to start his own label. It’s an instant formula for success, especially in the years where there was a vacuum for the music, the scene wasn’t going in any particular direction. So he concentrated his efforts and made those four bands into industry leaders.. (For those of you that don’t know those bands were – VNV, Covenant, Suicide Commando and Velvet Acid Christ)
It was a great success. But I’m not soo sure how that’s worked with the follow up bands since Covenant and ourselves left… We knew even a long time ago that at some point we’d be leaving and we’d even discussed this with Dependent. Our aim was always to reach people, in our own way. Not by compromising or selling out, becoming some cheap, two centimetre deep version of ourselves in order to reach people. I don’t believe in that kind of selling out. But I don’t want to talk about that much more, but we had decided to leave some 9 months before the actual split.

J – So what about once you’d left Dependent surely you must have had a lot of major label interest? How did you deal with that and how come you ended up setting up your own label?
R – As far as major interest, strange you say that.. I’m laughing because I’ve watched so many of the major players in the industry fall apart in the last few years. In Germany they’re talking about it as though it’s the end of the world. It’s like, financial realism. At the end of the 80’s everyone in the financial arena had speculated in the stock markets trying to make a quick buck and the fact was that the market couldn’t hold that. The money was paper money, it didn’t exist it was just a balloon, and that balloon had to pop. The same thing happened with the record industry. They were stuck on formulas, making vast amounts of money. They weren’t investing anything in any new talent, new talent to them was made up bands that would fit into the formula, and then the whole thing fell apart because people stopped buying CD’s. Kids went to DVD’s and Playstation games to spend their disposable income rather than buying CD’s. Those that did buy CD’s found that when they got them home there were just one or two tracks on the album that were any they rightfully felt cheated.
Our scene has always sold well in Germany. It’s not a big figure, but it was a reliable figure. There was a time when every major label in Germany was looking to sign every major successful band in our scene. Covenant did it, Pitchfork did it, Di/Vision did it and they all failed. And we knew that they would fail.
So let me go back to us… Major labels don’t interest me. I couldn’t see that we would ever succeed with them, I didn’t see that any other band would because the way in which our music is presented that people choose to buy it, any bands in our scene. They choose to like them or they don’t. If they choose to, it’s because they feel that the music/band speaks to them individually and personally. They choose it to be away from the mainstream, away from the charts and the main German radio. I mean German radio is dros! It’s the same 50 old songs on rotation.. It’s just so sad.
Major labels work like you are a stock company to deliver a product which means you’re not there to be creative, you’re there to produce hits that sell and unless you sell over a certain amount they dump you. And that’s just NOT why I do music! If people like it and they buy lots of it that’s great, but that’s not what I’m specififcally trying to do, that’s not my main focus. We’ve reached a lot of people, we’ve got very successful in Germany and very successful in America but a lot of it was just the honesty and the hard work. We’re on the right labels, Anachron Sounds isn’t doing too badly.

J – What’s it like having your own label then?
R – It’s like… well it’s a LOT of HARD WORK! Doing the DVD and that release was the biggest stress I ever had in my life. It was just the fact that when the shit hit the fan, and the DVD technical problems happened there was no support. We were the label, so we had to support ourselves and that was tough. I’m not someone who ever gives up, this was my product and my dream, and I had to take charge and just do it. I guess we were fortunate in that we were already well known we didn’t have to make a big investment in marketing and promotion, we just needed somewhere that was a release point for it, and our media company in Germany did a great job of promoting it for us… When I find myself pouring over the paperwork, some sales sheet or whatever it gets really boring, but that’s ok because at least I control my own life, my own product you know? No-one can tell me what to do.

J – For sure, yeah absolutely.. So let’s move on. What’s your favourite VNV track you’ve written and why?
R – I don’t have favourite track. Every track is about an aspect of myself, or aspects of how I was at a certain time in my life. They kind of function like an electronic diary. It’s a bit like saying what’s the favourite day in your life, what’s your favourite sad moment.
Ermm… Favourite song live, if I could say that?

J – Yeah sure, shoot.
R – That would be Dark Angel, because it gives me such a boost. It’s autobiographical in a way, it’s coded like I have to do with some of my songs, otherwise I’d be telling people my deepest darkest secrets. But the thing is that those codes work for other people, and they relate to it. If they feel the passion that inspired those words, the same passion that they felt at that time in their life, then I’ve done my job. Because that is what I love. It’s the connecting on a level that is so unsuperficial, it’s a connection of hearts and minds or whatever..

J – It’s going back to what we were talking about earlier. There’s a purity in some things.. some song lyrics, some art, some performance. If you bare your soul…
R – Catharsis..

J – Yeah absolutely. People think that to get up on stage and do that in front of all those people is madness, but actually it’s the safest place in the worldto do that..
R – Yes! You’re absolutely right. There’s a kind of misperception that there is a division between you and the audience but when you play live and share your life through your words and music and people are loving it.. It may sound stupid but the boundaries disappear and you and the audience unite in a place behind the music and the lyrics. It’s what I do. It’s what I love about what I do. I don’t feel naked I feel protected you know? So protected that in the past I would feel like screaming out my issues.. and believe me in the early days I did.
J + R – (burst into laughter simultaneously..)
R – No I remember doing this gig in Tudbury (spelling?) Where people said jokes about me after the show that said it was like watching someone bleed on stage. (cue laughter from both sides)
And all my friends were at the front crying going – Jeesus! What is WRONG with him?? Is he aright?? I was lie wrapped in cable on the ground, I was in another WORLD in those days..(by this point tears of laughter break from the interviewers eyes.. and Ronan is in full swing, he is loving this tale..) That’s what people loved about the shows.. They’d go – come on! Lets’ go see that nutter do his bit!
– And then there were others who were down there sharing it, watching their emotions being acted out for them, on the stage song after song. Emotions they’d not been able to express, shit! I’d not been able to express all of my life…I’d been in the Arts, I’d done Acting and all that but I’d never got to the core of it, reached inside of my own self..and music did that for me, and it felt like the most comfortable place to be in the world.
I don’t care whether someone dislikes it or likes it, I’m very unbothered about what people say about us. I mean I joke about us more than anyone else would because you can’t take yourself too seriously. You can’t take yourself too intensely. You have your emotions but you don’t have to live them every minute of the day. We’re the range of emotions from laughter to sadness. We can joke and we can sing deep sad songs but the blood is running through our veins nonetheless and we are at the end of the day human and that is what we’re here to remind people.
It’s funny but electronic music is so automated, a lot of the bands are clichéd in singing about the ‘cyber-future’, computers, a chemically infested future – But we’re different. This is electronic music sure, but it’s electronic music with serious folk songs! The folk spirit on top of it you know??
(raucous laughter erupts between the idea of electronic folk!)

J - A couple more questions and then we’re done..
R – No go ahead, I’m really enjoying this..

J – What’s your honest opinion about bands that emulate you? Do you feel that bands copy you?
R – We never noticed it at first until people pointed it out. Erm.. I got a giggle out of it. I was kind of more STUNNED, because it was like – WHAT??? It was the same sort of stunned like when I heard that people were buying our records..It was like Whhaat? Whhhy? I still actually think that we’re a crap band that nobody wants to see and I’m always amazed when people show up for the gigs. Actually my sister and my brother are here this weekend, and they are FLOORED by this..They met a bloke last night with a tattoo on his arm (stand up Tony.. you know who you are!) and they were like – Whattt??- I said yeah I know I get this all the time and I’m still not used to it.
Ok now I’ve lost my place in this, where were we??

J – About VNV Copy bands.. I’m thinking that for example that when you left Dependent there was a certain band that joined just after you left, that some say sound remarkably like you.
R – Whose name sounded like one of our albums? (Praise the Fallen - Pride and Fall…you decide..)

J – Yes.
R – Well actually I’m only repeating the comment which is very prevalent over the internet. There is a certain amount of sarcasm about that because ‘certain other labels’ spokespeople were putting down the type of music we did, Futurepop – which incidentally is not what most people think Futurepop is – it’s a word that got totally misused.

J – For me Futurepop was a term coined by journalists and music execs it was just a marketing ploy to sell more records to create a new genre when there was no need to.
R – Sure. Wait till people see our new marketing campaign and then we’ll see about what people think of that term!
Erm.. I feel very flattered by the bands that want to emulate our sounds. I thought it was very, very funny when I read all these comments on-line about bands from ‘certain other labels’ were telling all the DJ’s on a personal level that Futurepop’s dead and suddenly they sign a band that sound very much like us and everyone says it. Not one single person that I’ve met would say the opposite. And then the ‘certain other label’ puts out a press release that says that we’re the label that created this..It stinks of marketing, it reeks of we’ll do anything to get a sale, and I think that lacks integrity. You either have an opinion in which case you follow it, or you don’t.
The backlash of that is that a lot of people in our fanbase were incredibly cynical and vocally critical of it. I think the guys themselves are great, I’ve got all these bands that people say copy us. But I think to say that we’re an influence is a nicer and more accurate way to put it. That’s more true and I’m very flattered by it for sure. I’d have liked that my influence was more about baring your soul through your music than copying the sounds from Empires, but that’s ok, and maybe someday soon people will get that message and more great bands will come into the fore.
My biggest buzz is still from receiving emails from people who say that in some way my music or lyrics have changed their life in some way. That for me is what make it all worthwhile. That’s my payback, that’s my reward. And that’s what FLOORS me, when my music that I’ve made affects and touches someone else, that’s when I’m happiest and I know I’m doing the right thing.

J – You’ve achieved a heck of a lot in a small amount of time what have you got left to achieve?
R – Reach a LOT more people. I don’t think we’ve achieved that much. I’ve done what I set out to do I did that when I did Praise the Fallen. I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a hamster wheel where I feel I have to churn out the same product, otherwise what else would I do? I don’t feel like that at all. I have a lot more to achieve. I feel I have a responsibility to the people who listen to our lyrics and I have a lot of things that I still have to say. And since I have that voice in this scene I would like to use it responsibly…

J – Thanks Ronan, it’s been a real genuine pleasure interviewing you.
R – You’re welcome I really enjoyed this, thanks..

And so we leave Ronan and the backstage, and I walk away with a strange new respect and trust of VNV and Ronan. Ronan is honest. He’s a straight talking Irishman who wears his heart on his sleeve. He commands respect, and I for one have been impressed by his passion for what he does and deep love and respect he has for those that listen to his music.
In the concert later on that night, Ronan breaks down in tears on stage.. His sister has just told him that night that his Dad is proud of him. He shares this news with us like we are his family. His spiritual family. At that moment there is a wave of emotion that floods through the crowd – there is not a dry eye in the house. Ronan bares his soul, it’s the safest place to do it. This is his homeland and WE are his family. And this is VNV Nation. Forget the labels Futurepop, or whatever. VNV Nation stands for emotion and passion, it’s about connecting one human being to another, it’s about sharing your issues and sharing your lives. It’s about brotherhood, and I for one are happy to have Ronan and VNV as my brothers.

Copyright DJ CYBERCHRIST 2004